(You should watch Inside Llewyn Davis before reading this, which you should have anyway because Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece. Criterion just put out a new edition of the film, so you are fresh out of excuses)
“What are you doing?”
Inside Llewyn Davis scares the shit out of me.
But before we talk about that properly, let’s talk a little bit about Greek mythology.
According to The Odyssey, dreams pass through one of two gates. There are the gates of ivory, through which pass false dreams, dreams formed of lies and illusions. The gates of horn, however, are reserved for ‘true’ dreams. Dreams of insightful knowledge, dreams of prophecy for the life awaiting you, these passed through the gates of horn before arriving in your mind and coming to fruition.
Before trying to parse out any kind of meaning from a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, we must first accept that these two are perhaps the merriest pranksters ever set loose on American cinema. They delight in misleading audiences, in twisting narratives inside out to upend and frustrate expectations, and in refusing any and all attempts by critical minds to suss out the ‘true’ intention of their work. Ask a Coen about metaphor and allusion, and their default response is to giggle and say that they never think about their work on those lines.
Having said that, they named the fucking cat in this movie ‘Ulysses’, so I think we can say with some confidence that other allusions to Homer’s Odyssey are intentional.
For those of you who haven’t seen Inside Llewyn Davis, it is perhaps the Coens’ most nebulous, tricky work, precisely because it avoids the usual narrative and linguistic trickery that has rendered more than one of their films a hyper-dense conglomeration of impenetrability. There are no kidnapping plots, no visible mysticism, no self-consciously quirky characters that act as either impediment or expedient to the protagonist gaining or losing grace. Inside Llewyn Davis is ‘simply’ a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).
And it, more than any other Coen Brothers film, scares me to my core.
Llewyn is a folk singer in the music scene of New York City in 1961. Having recently lost his friend and music partner, Llewyn is struggling to make ends meet as a solo act. That means hustling for gigs, haggling for cash, and crashing on the couches of whichever unfortunate friend (or even acquaintance, he comes across). He’s hitting up his more successful friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) for money and chances to play at the same time that Llewyn finds out that he, Llewyn, has knocked up Jim’s wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) and now needs to pay for an abortion. Oh, and he lost the cat of two other friends, and his record isn’t selling, and his dad is in a nursing home and struggling, and on and on and on. While Llewyn is struggling with these day-in and day-out struggles of trying to survive the frigid New York February, he’s seeing other people in the same scene start to really find success, netting big deals and becoming stars.
The centerpiece of the film (for all that a film this intentionally shaggy can be said to have a center) is a long road trip to Chicago that Llewyn takes with faded junkie jazz singer Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Turner’s ‘valet’, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Having burned through all his options in NYC, Llewyn impulsively jumps in a car with these two in the hopes of auditioning for legendary manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the latter’s club.
Llewyn gets his audition.
And he pours his heart and soul into the song he plays.
And he is told that what he has just done is not good enough. He is not going to be successful as a solo artist.
The club is call The Gates of Horn. Llewyn’s dream will not pass through.
The first time I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, I liked it plenty for all the reasons I normally enjoy films made by the Coen Brothers that don’t involve divorce attorneys or elaborate schemes to murder old black women. But something about it has sat in my gut from that first viewing, gnawing away at me and compelling me to watch it repeatedly, watching it more than Coen Bros. films that are arguably better, or at least more ‘fun’ to watch.
It’s that sense of failure, I think, that almost crippling melancholy that overtakes the film as first Llewyn and then the audience gradually come to understand that he is truly damned. There is no breaking this cycle of near-misses and close calls. Llewyn is never going to make it through to that next level, he is never going to find that success. This endless winter in which we find him will extend for whatever life remains to him.
And, Christ, does that scare the shit out of me. I look at this film and it’s like the Ghost of Christmas Future is riding shotgun on my couch, bony hand clamped on my shoulder for the full runtime.
It would be the height of blind privilege not to acknowledge that there are many, many worse ways to end up. And I would be a fool not to be grateful for everything I already have in my life. I’m a white American guy living in 2016, with a roof over my head and food in my belly. By any measurement, I am an incredibly fortunate young man.
And yet there is so much more that I want to do with my trip around this rock. There is so much I want to see, to be, so many things I want to achieve. And I’m young enough, blind enough, to believe that hell yeah I’m going to do it all. I’m going to find someone to publish these stories of mine, I’m going to make big money on it, and I’ll keep charging ahead and keep getting better and better. I’ll find the love of my life, I’ll build a life and a family, I’ll leave an impact on this world that will keep my story being told even after I’m gone. Of course I will. Of course I will.
Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just never be that good. Maybe I just won’t get those lucky breaks. Maybe something will go wrong inside me or some piece of a space station will hit my house or maybe any number of disasters or calamities, the ones both major and minor, will always conspire to have me chasing my own tail. Maybe the story just ends, no fanfare, no encore.
I watch this movie and feel terrified of waking up one day to look in the mirror and see Llewyn Davis looking back at me (to be fair, there are worse fates than looking in the mirror and seeing Oscar Isaac looking back). That fear gets in the gut and it only drives me to work hard, keep writing, keep pushing stuff out there in as many avenues as I can until something catches.
There’s art that inspires for the way it uplifts. There are films that assure you that everything is going to work out, that right will equal might and dreams will come true to those who believe.
And then there is art like Inside Llewyn Davis that remind you that, no, there are no guarantees for such tidy conclusions. Sometimes you fight against the world and the world hits back and keeps hitting. People tend not to like this second kind as much as the first, but it is every bit as galvanizing.
It’s the kind of art that makes you fight, and fight, and keep on fighting all the way up to those Gates of Horn, where all that is left is to see if your dream will pass through.